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Firing the senses

Review: Bangarra Dance Theatre, “30 years of sixty five thousand” ·
State Theatre Centre of WA, 31 July ·
Review by Jo Pickup ·

“We are the books of yesterday”.

These were amongst the words spoken by Balladong Noongar artist Barry McGuire in his welcoming address to the audience at the premiere of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Perth season “30 years of sixty five thousand”.

Indeed, on opening night, the bodies of 17 Bangarra dancers pulsed with stories of both ancient and more recent pasts, as they performed three works specially chosen by the company’s Artistic Director Stephen Page to comprise the company’s thirtieth anniversary season.

The three works are Unaipon (2004) by former Bangarra dancer-turned-choreographer Frances Rings; Stamping Ground (1983) by internationally renowned Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián, and to make fire, a 40 minute work comprised of various memorable moments from the company’s repertoire as chosen by Stephen Page.

Tyrel Dulvarie in 'Unaipon'. Photo: Daniel Boud.
Tyrel Dulvarie in ‘Unaipon’. Photo: Daniel Boud.

Firstly, Unaipon. This is a work inspired by Aboriginal inventor and philosopher David Unaipon, a Ngarrindjeri man whose face now appears on the Australian $50 note. At first, Unaipon’s score (composed by the late David Page), resonates with mellifluous orchestral string sounds. Five male dancers clad in bright orange pants soon appear and zigzag across the stage, sliding and stretching between long elastic strings which are pulled taut like a clothesline across the width of the space.

The dancers expertly weave themselves through this maze creating small geometric kaleidoscopes at intermittent intervals. The music also builds into impressive patterns and layers that include rattling, stick tapping and deep electronic beats. The small ensemble of performers move with effortless strength and vitality, though dancer Beau Dean Riley Smith is particularly captivating here. At particular moments his physical presence eclipses his band of brothers; his unique series of flexes and strikes are achieved with remarkable precision.

As more dancers enter the stage, the work progresses to scenes of male-female duets and cyclical stage patterning. By the end, we seem to have been taken into a world of an individual whose life was layered with complex questions of identity. Through Rings’s choreography; Page’s sound score; Peter England’s set design and Nick Schlieper’s lighting, certain aspects of Unaipon’s life as a traditional Ngarrindjeri man, a man raised by a white family, and a man who was a devout Christian are drawn out in poetic and, at times, highly abstract style.

Ryan Pearson,Tyrel Dulvarie, Ella Havelka in 'Stamping Ground'. Photo: Daniel Boud.
Ryan Pearson, Tyrel Dulvarie, Ella Havelka in ‘Stamping Ground’. Photo: Daniel Boud.

This complex intertwining of different cultures and beliefs also imbues Jiří Kylián’s iconic work Stamping Ground. This piece was created in the early eighties after Kylián travelled from Europe to Northern Australia to experience a massive corroboree at Groote Eylandt. The result is a fascinating window into Kylian’s creative mind and curious spirit. To see Kylian’s response to these traditional, ceremonial Aboriginal dances, expressed through his signature balletic, yet boundary-pushing modern dance style was very interesting. Aesthetically stripped back and minimalist, the six dancers in this work (three male, three female), performed Kylian’s both profound and playful visions in dynamic fashion on opening night. Especially impressive was the performance of soloist Baden Hitchcock. His leaps were magnificent, his landings silent and controlled. Throughout the work, though especially in his opening solos, he moved with a mesmerising eloquence that was almost breathtaking and left a deep impression.

And lastly, to make fire. As a selection of best-bits and moving moments Bangarra’s archive over the past thirty years, on the whole, the piece seemed subtle in its choices. However (and almost as an admonishment for such an observation) its closing scene comes up trumps. A circle of dancers in white dust lie on a darkened stage until a moment of awakening. This waking instant is dramatic, enlivening and stirring. Yes, Bangarra continues to fire our senses in its power to connect us to the strength inherent in Aboriginal culture and stories, and “30 Years of Sixty Five Thousand” is a nourishing reminder of that.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s “30 Years of Sixty Five Thousand” plays until August 3.

Pictured top: Courtney Radford, Tyrel Dulvarie and Gusta Mara in ‘to make fire’. Photo: Daniel Boud.

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